“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them?”
From the Delphic hamlet that is The Australian, Greg Sheridan has given Australian Churches an oracle.
According to Sheridan,
Australia’s Christian churches are in crisis, on the brink of complete strategic irrelevance. It’s not clear they recognise the mortal depth of their problems.
The churches need a new approach to their interaction with politics and the public debate, and to keeping themselves relevant in a post-Christian Australian society.
The churches cannot recognise and come to grips with their strategic circumstances. They behave as though they still represent a living social consensus.
The Christian churches now need to reconceive of themselves as representing a distinct and not all that big minority (of practising Christians). They should conduct themselves as a self-confident minority, seeking to win conversion through example and persuasion and not to defend endlessly legal protections and enforcements that are increasingly untenable or meaningless.
In my opinion Greg Sheridan offers a lucid critique of many Churches who are failing to grapple with the rise of secularism, although I wonder if he adequately understands the nature of the Church’s mission and therefore how success and relevance are defined.
Sheridan is right to point out the gross sins of abuse within the Catholic Church (and other denominations as well), and the way this has greatly damaged community perceptions of Churches.
There is urgent need for Churches to practice repentance. Dressed in clerical collars and reciting liturgy, great evil has been perpetrated, especially in the area of sexual abuse. Joe Smith and Lisa Jones can see it, but there remain clergy in some institutions that still don’t get it. The fact that their deeds expose them to be frauds of faith does not diminish the impact on the community. Real, transparent, and deep repentance is required.
Sheridan is also spot on in observing the naivety of some Christians who believe they still belong to the centre of Australian life. We defer to census figures that prove the majority of Aussies believe in God and who identify as Christian, but surely we know better. The reality is, Churches have never belonged comfortably at the centre of Australian society; they have played a significant role in shaping culture, alongside many other voices, but it is more a case of Churches being tolerated rather than celebrated and embraced.
This tolerance is eroding, rapidly so. This year alone we have seen various groups slamming the foot on the accelerator, such that we are fast approaching an intersection called ‘free speech’, and the direction Australians will take remains unclear.
Several political groups have declared their hand:
The Greens have decided their way forward by calling for religious organisations to lose their exemptions for discrimination laws.
Federal Labor have made clear: “Labor believes that no faith, no religion, no set of beliefs should ever be used as an instrument of division or exclusion, and condemning anyone, discriminating against anyone, vilifying anyone is a violation of the values we all share, a violation which can never be justified by anyone’s faith or belief. Accordingly, Labor will review national anti-discrimination laws to ensure that exemptions do not place Australians in a position where they cannot access essential social services.”
Bill Shorten has since stepped back from this position, but there are no guarantees he won’t step forward again.
And the Victorian Government, singing from their autocratic hymnal, has determined to insult and silence anyone who challenges their hermeneutic of life.
Should churches fight to keep a voice in the public arena?
We must concede that Churches no longer occupy a position in the middle, but we don’t want to evacuate the public space altogether. I want to argue that it is worth fighting for a voice in public discourse, but we do so with the belief that the Gospel does not depend upon it. So why should we defend notions of ‘freedom of speech’.
First of all, we have something to say. We have good news to speak and show our neighbours, and so why would we walk away from secular principles that give us freedom for speaking and contributing?
Secondly, we should defend the right to speak for the sake of those who speak against us. Is this not a way in which we love our neighbour? Is it also not a sign of a mature society, one that is big enough to allow a plurality of voices, and to say ‘I disagree with you, but let’s hear you out and then talk it through’.
A great example of this happened last week when Christians came to the support of Roz Ward, a professing Marxist and co-founder of the controversial curriculum, Safe Schools. Ward was forced to resign from a Government role and was suspended from La Trobe University after a comment she made in regard to the Australian flag. While her views may be disagreeable to many, she has the right to express them, and to find herself being ousted from an academic institution on account them was extreme. Subsequently, a number of Christian leaders noted this hypocrisy and sided with those who called for her reinstatement.
Thirdly, we are members of a democratic society, which in principle gives permission for Christians and atheists alike to speak and offer their opinion.
As a liberal democracy, Australia is governed by these 4 principles:
“A belief in the individual: since the individual is believed to be both moral and rational;
A belief in reason and progress: based on the belief that growth and development is the natural condition of mankind and politics the art of compromise;
A belief in a society that is consensual: based on a desire for order and co-operation not disorder and conflict;
A belief in shared power: based on a suspicion of concentrated power (whether by individuals, groups or governments).”
If we accept these principles, surely Christians have freedom to articulate their views in public discourse? This doesn’t mean people have to like or affirm these beliefs (nor those of any worldview), but it does mean there is freedom to speak. Unfortunately though, it seems as though these values are becoming museum pieces, relics from a golden age of democracy when the Cleisthenes’ of Australia stood tall. After all, no fair democracy has ever endured the ages. And yet, while Australia formally holds to these democratic convictions, there is a place for Christians to speak without fear of law or litigation.
Our democratic liberties give Christians a platform and context for doing public ministry, and we are thankful for this, but the Gospel is not curtailed by the limitations or freedoms of liberal democracy. Indeed, history demonstrates that Churches have often flourished where they have been most resented. More importantly, Jesus Christ taught a theology of the world which lives in opposition to God and which hates those who follow Jesus. Why should we assume Australia is any different?
How should Churches view ‘success’?
Are, as Greg Sheridan suggests, ‘churches in crisis now on all fronts’? It depends on how one defines the mission and role of the church.
Our aim is to love others, whether our convictions are affirmed by others or not.
Our goal is not relevance, for the Gospel we believe is not defined by a popularist epistemological current, but by the word of the cross, which is foolishness to the wise and powerful of this world. Instead, our purpose is to preach this foolishness for through it God works to redeem and heal.
Our mission is not to set up power structures at the centre of society, but to speak the Gospel and to love others no matter where we find ourselves situated in relation to broader society.
Freedom of speech has become the gordian knot of our day. Politicians, lawyers, and academics will ponder and debate and try to find a way to navigate through the many layers of twisted and knotted rope, and while their answers will have implications for Christian speech and life in public, our hope does not lay with them, but in the Gospel, a word that is sharper than a two edged sword. Our hope rests in the Christ who has promised that he will build his church and not even Hades can stand against it.
Sadly many Christians have sold their soul in order to buy a place at the centre of public life, and they are now being marshalled into following the lead of the social progressives, and others are instead holding tight to their conservative neuroses. There are however exceptions; across the land there are churches growing and people are becoming Christians, and there are Bible colleges in Australian cites who are training more men and women than in the previous generation. There are Christians serving in Parliament, teaching in universities, and working in a thousand different jobs. And to these men and women, keep preaching and living the Gospel, loudly from the centre or whispering it from the edge, and through it God will keep working his grace and growing his Kingdom.